7-21-17 - Shine Like the Sun

Every story needs a happy ending. Many of Jesus’ parables have ambiguous ones, but this one ends on a high note: “Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

I love the idea of shining like the sun - assuming I'm among the “righteous.” Could such idyllic joy really come at the end of our story, after all the trouble caused by the enemy and the weeds and the difficulty of telling plants apart, and the sorting and bundling and tossing into fiery furnaces? Is there cause for joy in the destruction of evil?

Look more closely at the description Jesus gives of the “weeds” whom the angel reapers would cull from the field. “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers…” It's not about removing “sinners” from the “righteous” – for one of the gifts of Christian belief is the understanding that we are all sinful and righteous, all the same time.

No, the angels will be collecting out of God’s kingdom all causes of sin and doers of evil. I see a difference between sinner and evil-doer – an evil-doer is one who has given him or herself over to promoting destruction, like a cancer spreading throughout a body, whereas a sinner is manifesting the disease, not causing it. Jesus says his angels will gather up and remove all evil-doers, all causes of sin. All.

Think about that for a moment. No more greed. No more envy. No more racism. No more terrorizing. No more humiliation. No more violence. No more environmental devastation. No more… what causes of sin can you think of? Think of a world without that in it. Can you imagine it? Shine like the sun? We’d be so bright, we’d outshine the sun!

Today in prayer, let’s imagine the world with the causes of sin taken out. Let’s imagine freedom and peace and unfettered joy. Let’s imagine everyone under his or her own fig tree, enjoying economic and physical security, taking care of neighbors in need with mutual regard. Let’s imagine that prayer into being. What does yours look like?

Jesus’ parables are subversive little narratives, with big themes disguised as every-day items. Like wheat. Like weeds. Like the end of the world, and the dawning of the new age. Like us, shining like the sun.

Let anyone with ears hear!

Note of Celebration: Water Daily is four years old today! I am so grateful for this far-flung community of Water people, and the conversations I get to have with many of you. I'd love to expand the circle, so feel free to invite others to subscribe here.

7-20-17 - Avenging Angels

Jesus didn’t talk much about angels, but in his stories they’re anything but cuddly and comforting. They’re fierce and on a mission – and in the story he tells of the wheat and the weeds, that mission is executing God’s final judgment.

“…the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Our culture is big on angels (the harmless, protective variety) and not so keen on the prospect of a final judgment. Even in the church, many remove the judgment from our God story, preferring to emphasize God's mercy and acceptance. I am a huge fan of God’s mercy and acceptance… and suggest that these are pretty cheap commodities without judgment. We’d have to excise a lot of what Jesus taught and lived if we’re going to take judgment out of the picture. Our claim as Christians, at least traditionally, is that we will experience God's judgment as righteous, redeemed sinners because of what Jesus did for us. We are received in grace because we are one with Christ, not only because of God's great love.

This is only one of the stories Jesus told that include an Ultimate Sorting, with unrepentant, unredeemed evildoers meeting an unhappy fate – here a furnace of fire, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Why there is teeth-gnashing in Jesus’ images of hell, I don’t know – aural and dental torture to go along with the fire?)

The ones doing the sorting in this tale are the angels, who serve as God’s messengers – in this image, we might even say henchmen. Is fire the fate we would wish upon the weeds sown in the field, those who despise God and seek to destroy the goodness of God’s creation and creatures? Shouldn’t the judgment be aimed at the enemy sower?

That is a matter for us to pray about. If some manner of torment awaits the completely destructive, whether it’s physical pain or separation from God, that should drive us to pray fervently for them, asking God to have mercy, and do our best to share with them our own hope. Do you suppose that’s what Jesus meant by “pray for your enemies?” Might we even spare a prayer for the enemy of human nature, as one friend refers to the evil one?

Could we do such a thing in our prayer time today? Think of the worst sort of “weeds” we can, and pray for mercy for their souls? And that somehow that mercy would become real to them, working its way into stony hearts to reawaken love and compassion and hope?

Maybe you or I are called to show God's mercy to a particularly nasty sort of weed. Mercy can catalyze conversion and healing. Just think of it as lightening some fearsome angel’s workload.

7-19-17 - Whacking Weeds

It’s weed season in North America – hot, humid weather, storm-fed downpours. Everywhere we look, in our yards, on city streets, there are weeds to be pulled.

It’s weed season in Jesus’ parable too - an unnamed enemy has sown weeds in the wheat field in the dead of night. The servants propose to pull them up. The field’s owner has a different plan:
The servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, 'No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'

I had a friend who used to say, “Weeds are a social category.” Meaning, there is nothing innately wrong with many of the plants we deem weeds – except that they are not what we planted, not what we envisioned in our beautiful gardens. She may have glossed over the fact that undesired plants take nourishment and water and sunlight from plants with more fruitfulness – but she has a point. Who are we to decide what’s in and what’s out… or, more importantly, who’s in and who’s out, who’s wheat and who’s weed? Jesus’ story implies that it is not our call.

If we are to co-exist, then, what are we to do with people who manifest themselves as quite obviously weed-like – net takers, abusers, manipulators, terrorizers? The parable doesn’t tell us - parables are limited. In this one, the weeds and wheat are inanimate, rooted, fixed. There is no provision for their choices or for them to interact with one another. No parable was meant to tell the whole story.

So then, what is to be our position toward weeds? How might we help transform weeds - or accept them? We start by remembering that we share a common nature with all people, that even the worst possess innate humanity which is worthy of honor even if all their behavior and presentation to the world is not. Somewhere in the most disagreeable person is a child of a mother and father, a hurt and broken child worthy of our prayers, worthy of asking God to bless and heal and forgive. Sometimes we ask God to forgive someone before they are ready to do so for themselves.

We can ask the Spirit to tell us if we’re being called to more interaction with a given “weed” than just praying for God to bless and heal her. Are we invited to be in relationship with him? To listen, to help?

Today, let’s bring to mind some people we’ve deemed “weeds” in our gardens. As we pray for each of them, bringing them to mind and envisioning them bathed in God-light, we might also imagine them transformed from weed to glorious bloom, from pinched of face to relaxed and smiling, from mean to nurturing. It is a way of giving specificity to our prayers.

Above all, we remember Paul’s word that “our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 6:12)

The weeds are not the enemy, and the wheat is not in charge. Thanks be to God!

7-18-17 - The Spoiler

Who is this enemy in Jesus’ parable, this spoiler who came by night “while everyone was asleep” and sowed weeds among the wheat? We don’t have to look very far for an answer – Jesus provides it in his “key” to the parable:
“…the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.”

Many modern Christians profess not to believe in the devil, though Episcopalians continue to renounce him at every baptism. Such people allow for the concept of evil, but balk at the idea of evil personified, an entity we can name.

Jesus had no such hang-ups. He regularly did battle with the devil – directly, in his temptations in the wilderness; indirectly, releasing people from the power of demons; and cosmically, in his own mission of redemption and resurrection. He referred to the devil by names such as Satan (“accuser”) and Beelzebub, and depicted him as the source of evil that seeks to thwart the good designs of God.

The devil is mentioned throughout the Bible, though little discussed. He shows up in the preamble to the Book of Job – probably a later addition to the narrative. A fallen angel who aspired to a throne above God’s is discussed in Isaiah 14:12-20:
How you have fallen from heaven, morning star, son of the dawn! 
You have been cast down to the earth, you who once laid low the nations!
That is how the name Lucifer, or “light-bearer,” comes into our vocabulary. Jesus and New Testament authors spoke of this enemy, this tempter, author of lies, accuser, who has considerable power but is not equal to the power of God.

So why does God allow him any power at all? Was the sower in the parable also asleep? Why does he not accept the servants' offer to root out the weeds among the wheat?

The answer given in Jesus’ story is that trying to do so would destroy both the weeds and the wheat – and God is not in the destruction racket. Scripture suggests that is the province of the evil one, who seeks to “corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” as our baptismal liturgy puts it.

Is Jesus suggesting that we just have to live with evil as a part of life? I believe he is saying something much more complex than that. He suggests that the fight is not ours, but God’s, and God will deal with it in the final judgment. We don’t have to fight the devil or combat evil. We need to invite the power of heaven to fight on our behalf, to stand with the Spirit against the wiles of the evil one. James tells us, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.” (James 4:7) Resist, not fight.

The spiritual exercise I suggest today is to pray through Ephesians 6:10-20, mentally putting on the armor of light as Paul lays it out. This is a good spiritual tool to be practiced in. Our best strategy against the devil is not fear or fighting, but becoming ever more firmly rooted in God.

Our goal is to be the healthiest wheat we can be, and to strengthen our defensive weapons and armor of light. Lucifer is not the bearer of light – we are, we who carry the Light of the World within us. When we let it shine, the power of darkness doesn’t have a chance.

7-17-17 - A Careless Planter?

Jesus is on a run with agricultural metaphors. After last week’s Parable of the Sower, we go on to another tale about the Kingdom of heaven. But this time there are two sowers:

He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well.'

As we explore this story, we will see how the sower and his staff deal with this mess. Today, lets rest with the image of a nice, neat field of wheat sabotaged by choking weeds. Jesus cleverly uses this metaphor to account for the presence of evil in the goodness of a good God’s creation – and he is clear that the weeds are introduced by an enemy, not the Creator.

In this tale, the evil is inseparable from the good, and until it's time for the plants to bear fruit, no one can tell the weeds from the wheat. It’s all just one big mess growing up in the field we call this world. Thus we are reminded not to presume to judge others prematurely – it generally becomes apparent after awhile who is making life-giving choices and who is out for their own gain. And even then, it may not be so cut and dried. In this story the wheat does not take matters into its own hands and eliminate the weeds from its midst – a certain co-existence seems to be called for, at least in the short-term we call life in this world.

Jesus’ parables, like all good analogies, can fail us if we push them too hard toward the literal. Jesus likens the weeds to the “children of evil” and the wheat to the “children of the kingdom,” but no one is born one or the other. Theoretically, we all have the chance to be fruit-bearing wheat. iI's a question of where we put our allegiance, and from where we draw our power.

Today in prayer we might see ourselves as rooted in a field, planted by a loving Sower, nurtured by One who tends his beloved creation. We can invite the rain and sun and give thanks as we experience them.

Who else do you consider “wheat” in the part of God’s field in which you dwell.
Who helps you be fruitful?
And are there some whom you deem to be weeds? What happens when you pray for those people? Try it for a few weeks... ask for God to bless them beyond measure.

We are creatures of a loving Sower – who allowed an enemy to exercise free will, even at the cost of compromising his crop. Was this Planter careless? Or is his love so expansive, it makes room for people to find their way to good harvest?

7-14-17 - The Good Soil

One of the wonderful things about Jesus’ parables is their capacity to hold multiple, layered meanings. Even the ones for which Jesus gives a “this means that, and that means this” interpretation allow room for new ways of seeing and understanding the mystery of God-Life in these deceptively simple tales.

So it is with the fourth fate Jesus lays out of the seeds the Sower scattered: 
“Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

My first question is, “What is good soil for a Good News seed to fall into?”

It is soil with enough depth so that roots have room to expand and take hold; soil that is not too dry, nor too wet – meaning rational, but with some expanse for mystery and wonder. Soil that has been turned and aerated, always learning and wondering, alone and with others. (I’m sure there’s a place for worms and grubs in this metaphor, but let's skip that….)

In the spirit of multiple and multi-layered meanings, I would also say we are not only in the good soil, we are called to be the good soil in which other seeds can grow into fruitfulness. Let’s take a look at our congregations from the perspective of being good soil… what might we change or develop in order to be better soil for those who want to grow in faith?

How might we help transplant people we know into better spiritual soil so they can grow and thrive and bear good fruit in abundance?

So often Jesus talks about how we are made for fruitfulness, as he does again here. Seed that falls into good soil will bring forth fruit and multiply. Notice some multiply more than others – there is no competition. The point is to be a fruit-bearing seed, rooted in the good soil of God’s love, watered with the power of the Holy Spirit.

That’s a pretty good image to rest with in the summertime. Happy growing!

7-13-17 - Love Amid Thorns

In the parable Jesus tells about seeds taking root or withering, depending on where they fall, many of the forces that imperil them are by-products of a location, not the location itself – the birds that can pick seeds off a path, the sun that can scorch them on rocks. But now we come to a place which itself imperils a seed: “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.”

When we try to plant the seeds of sacrificial love and other-directedness amid a thicket of competing claims… look out.

We sow love in a very thorny landscape. The cares of the world and the lure of wealth, to which Jesus likened the thorns in his story, are very strong in our culture, while traditional moral and religious norms have become weaker. Some churches respond to diminishing fruitfulness by trying to place the benefits they offer among those other lures – “Look at the return you can get for your investment here!” Really large ones offer their own version of the competition, church-based banks, health clubs and the like.

The competing claims of wealth, family, security, recreation, status are a given. How might we embrace those goods without worshipping them?

What most chokes your desire to be connected to God?
For me, it's time and the to-do list. It can also be success – getting what you’ve always wanted. Even loved ones can choke our desire for God instead of directing us to that love.

What can we do about that? How might we invite Jesus into our time management, our to-do lists, our relationship priorities? Some people set timers to remind them to stop and pray. Others make sure to take a prayer walk each day.

If our relationships or our work loom larger than our God-connection, maybe we can invite God to be more fully a part of those areas in our lives, and figure out how.

Today, let’s contemplate the thorns in which we occasionally find ourselves, and pray for them to be transformed into roses. God has an amazing way of taking what we offer, and not removing it from our lives, but consecrating it for us, making it holy, as God is ever making us holy.

We need not fear the choking thorns when we turn daily to the source of our breath.

7-12-17 - Of Rocks and Sun

Rocks and sun are a perfect environment for lizards.For plants? Not so much…

We’ve probably all encountered the fervor of a convert – someone hot on a new thing they’ve learned or experienced. A new love, a new job, maybe a new diet. We may even have met a few Christians in the first throes of excitement about the love of God they’ve come to know in Christ.

Sometimes it lasts, sometimes it doesn’t. It depends on the depth of soil that allows roots to grow.

“Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.”  (This Sunday's gospel is here.)

What conditions make for rocky soil? Sometimes familiarity can foster complacency – same old, same old… that’s a kind of rockiness. Preoccupation with other concerns can keep us from growing spiritual roots. An emotional climate of anger or anxiety or stress can keep our soil rocky.

What would you identify as the hot sun that causes the newly rooted plants to wither? Fear, anger, hatred… Also some of the enemies we named yesterday, like ambition, sorrow, overwork, stress. What are the “hot suns” in your life that cause your spirit to become scorched and withered?

I remember once being deep in prayer on a retreat. In the prayer time, I sensed Jesus say to me, “I want you to come be with me every morning, to water your roots.” That’s partly why I named this Water Daily.

Are you feeling robust or withered as a spiritual person today? Might you walk that path with Jesus in your imagination and let him show you where you are today – on the path, on the rocks, in the deep soil? What does he suggest you do?

And what shall we do for those whom we see withering spiritually? Help transplant them into deeper soil, provide shade in the form of spiritual friendship - and sprinkle liberally with the Living Water gushing inside you, the Holy Spirit who renews all things in Christ.

7-11-17 - Of Paths and Birds

"Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up."  (This week's gospel parable is here.)

Paths can be beautiful, but they’re not places for growing, are they? We call a path full of greenery “overgrown.” One of the first things I do when I get to our cottage in Michigan each summer is take a broom and reclaim the path down to the lake (laid by my great-grandmother…) from the weeds and sod encroaching upon its surfaces.

Paths are for journeying, arteries that carry us from one place for growing to another. When the Good News is told to people who are on the path, on the move, they may not receive it fully – it remains on the surface, easy pickings for other messages and other priorities that conflict with it.

And what do you see as the birds, these entities that gobble up the newly scattered seed so it has no time to take root? Distractions, competing claims, yes – and also something deeper: lies the Enemy tells us to undermine our ability to trust in the goodness of God, and the goodness of God in us. Those lies can take many forms, and are often disguised in advertising. Competitiveness. 60-80 hour workweeks. Stress. Anxiety. What’s on your list?

Today, name some paths in your life, in-between spaces. (Work can be a field, or a path; relationships can be a field or a path…)What are the growing places in your life that you can name and celebrate?

Do you know some people for whom the Word of God has fallen onto the path and been picked off?
How might you help them become rooted in good soil?

The birds are a given. They even have their place.We just need to shoo them off when they threaten our spiritual health, or someone else’s.

Maybe being active and intentional in the Life of God is like the netting people put over growing berries and vegetables – the sun and water get through, but the birds have to do their munching somewhere else.

7-10-17 - Story Seeds

Ah – story-time. We’ve arrived at a stretch of parables in our Sunday Gospel selections. Parables were stories Jesus told to show what the Kingdom of God, or the Life of God, looks like, how it operates in ways that are often very different from the ways of this world. Parables invite us to play, to turn them this way and that, see how our interpretation shifts according to our angle. Some are short, some long; some are challenging to figure out; some are explained (which can take some fun out of it…).

This week’s story is one of those, which Jesus explained to his disciples in private. But let’s pretend we don’t have that interpretation and wonder about the images he offers.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: "Listen! A sower went out to sow."

What do sowers sow? Generally, seeds. But we can sow doubt, or anger, or fear, or joy, or hope, or faith... Where do sowers sow it? Ideally, in good soil.

This sower seems to have been a little careless – or maybe carefree. He, or she, just seems to have tossed the seeds randomly rather than laying them down in carefully plowed rows. We know this because some land in places where seeds have trouble rooting and growing.

Who do you think this sower is?
Is it God in creation?
Is it Jesus, the one who came to reveal and redeem?
Is it the Holy Spirit, showing up wherever he is invited?
Is it us when we share our faith with another, or when we show love in the name of Christ?


Why the randomness? Are all seeds meant to take root, and some just don’t?
Are we meant to seek those and help replant them?

What are the seeds – the Word of God, the Good News of freedom in Christ?
Are we the seeds? Hmmm…. How does the story look when it we turn it that way?

Today in prayer let’s put ourselves into this parable – where do you find yourself? 
Are you sower or seed or soil? 
Ask God to show you where God might have you sow love and spirit in your life at this time.

There is something frustrating and wonderful about the scattered seeds – it means that the Life of God can spring up anywhere at any time. Watch for it!

7-7-17 - Cure for Inner Conflict

Let’s switch over to Romans for the end of the week. The reading appointed for Sunday is convoluted in language but deeply important in message, as Paul expresses a basic human conundrum: 
“I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

This plight will be familiar to anyone who’s ever found himself unable to put down the ice cream container, or stick to one cocktail, or stop herself from telling someone else’s secret… we know what “right” is in most circumstances, and sometimes we just watch ourselves walk right over to the “wrong” side of town. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Paul sees two forces at work in himself, two competing laws – the law of God, or spirit, and the law of the mind, or “flesh.” Describing the turmoil wrought by the effort to navigate these skirmishes, he ends up with a cry from the heart we’ve all felt at some point or other: 
“Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”

His answer is close at hand: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” 
The way to stop the cycle of self-destructiveness when we’re in its grip is not by trying harder, but by surrendering more to the one force in the universe more powerful than our own desires: the God who made us, who sent his Son among us to draw us into a relationship in which our internal battles are overwhelmed by Love.

God’s power is right here – power to resist evil, turn away from temptation, turn to life instead of death. The only thing we need do is invoke the power of God: "Jesus, be here now!” That was my prayer once when I’d fallen down a flight of stairs; it should be my prayer every time I struggle with choosing the best course. As any recovering addict will tell you, will power doesn't get us very far; surrender to help allows us to go the distance.

Let’s not forget the loving invitation we’ve been looking at from our Gospel reading this week:
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Turning toward Jesus, calling on the power of the Holy Spirit to fill and transform our desires gets easier the more we do it. It takes awhile for anything to become habitual, but with practice, this can become our first response. Just as oxen that are yoked to a cart have to travel together, spirits that are yoked to Christ no longer try to go their separate ways.

7-6-17 - Come Unto Me

Were sweeter words ever found in Scripture for a harried people? 
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

To be a disciple means taking on the discipline of a master, doing whatever he or she tells you to do. The Pharisees and teachers of the law demanded much of their followers, to keep the Law of Moses perfectly in every particular. Nuances of love, mercy and relationship often fell by the wayside. The burdens of these demands were heavy indeed, and never satisfactorily met - except by the Teachers, of course.

We can say the same of the demands our culture places upon us – to be more productive, more successful, more financially secure, more fashionable, attractive, sweet-smelling, popular… you name it. The new law is no less onerous than the old. And so Jesus’ invitation is alive for us as well.

We too take on a yoke when we take on Christ’s life, as oxen are fitted with an apparatus so they can pull a cart. We offer our obedience to him and take on the ministry of being his apostles, his witnesses – proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, freeing the captives. Like his original disciples, we may be called to give up things or people we find precious for rewards only known later.

But Jesus says his yoke is easy, and his burden is light. Unlike the burden of the Law-bound, his is the yoke of freedom in God. Unlike the arrogant Teachers, he is gentle and humble in heart; he was never ashamed to eat with obvious sinners and people on the margins.

Do you want to find rest for your soul? In many of us, our soul feels restless, especially in a culture that does not privilege space for the spiritual.
Have you experienced knowing Jesus as restful or stressful? 
 If stressful, we might take a look at what part of his message we’re focusing on.

What can you do today to find rest for your soul?
Whether you are in the midst of work stress, or easing into a summer vacation, I suggest you start with some “soul rest” time in Jesus’ presence. Hand off your burdens and take on his promise of peace, and then spread it around.

7-5-17 - You're Such a Baby!

How do you feel about being called a baby? 
At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” 
(This week's gospel reading is here.)

Some might take it as an insult. We might rather receive it as an invitation to total trust in God. Infants are receiving machines - they do not feed, clothe or even move themselves. The only thing they can “do” is ask for help by using their voices – and reward their helpers with big smiles, which they quickly learn will get them far. If it were true that “God helps those who help themselves,” a deeply destructive maxim which is nowhere to be found in Christian scripture, none of us would see our second birthdays.

The most challenging part of faith-life for many is having to depend upon the grace and mercy and power of God for what matters most in the long-term. Learning to receive God’s goodness and not worry so much about repaying – for we cannot – is a mark of maturity in faith.

Infants are clear about their needs and quick to ask. They are fully in relationship with their care-givers. We can learn from them to go first to God when we need something instead of making it our last resort. And, as with those babies who reward us with gurgles and smiles, our praise can become immediate when we’ve received a gift.

Of course, infants are anything but simple. In their tiny minds and bodies are contained all the systems and equipment that adults have, just waiting to mature. I believe that, whether we are young or mature in faith, we too have everything we need to live a God-reliant, praise-filled life – it is all given to us by the Holy Spirit in baptism, maybe even in birth, waiting to be developed.

What are some attributes of infants that you would like to borrow and try on as you approach God?
What are the things you cannot do for yourself that you are afraid to trust God with? Or eager to?

Today in prayer we might try an imagination exercise – imagine yourself as an infant being held or watched over by Jesus… how does he interact with you in that prayer space? Does he say anything? Do you? What do you feel?

Infants have a huge learning curve, because they have everything about life to learn. As Christ followers, we are in a similar position – we have everything about Life to learn. Let’s open our spiritual senses and breathe it in.

7-4-17 - Land of the Free

Today is America’s Independence Day, which many will celebrate by being freed from a day at work.

Independence means something different in the Christian life than it might politically. The kind of liberty Jesus invites us into is strongly inter-dependent. He invites us to be tethered to God, to one another and to serving the world, not because we are being forced, but by our free choice.

Paul writes in Romans that we have been set free from sin so as to be enslaved to God, the reward for which is being made holy, or sanctification. Would we voluntary enslave ourselves to anything? Well, yes… Our lives are full of ways in which we yield our freedom – on a limited basis – to achieve a goal. We become employees working under the policies and procedures of our employers; we pay personal trainers large sums to make us perform painful and arduous exercises; we follow certain diets.

And we voluntarily take on the yoke Jesus offers, which he says is easy. And when we truly trust him, it is. It is only when we pull away that we find it chafes.

I believe that God’s greatest desire for us is freedom, to be free from all that holds us back and makes us less than who we were intended to be, less than who God already knows us to be. That freedom does not make us independent, however – it makes us interdependent.

We are asked to become more dependent on God, to throw all our weight and trust on this One we cannot see but discern in our lives and around us. As we grow in that relationship, we learn the ways that God is depending upon us to be the vessels by which God’s transforming love and healing power are enacted in the world. We cannot do it without God; God will not do it without us.

We are also invited to become interdependent with others in our communities of faith, and with those whom we would serve. We will see peace and justice reign when we truly understand that to seek the good for our neighbor will create good and security and plenty for us. Even better will be the day when we don’t think in “us” and “them” terms at all – as U2 sings in Invisible, “There is no them; there’s only you, there’s only me.

And we are interdependent in service to the world, willing to be served as well as to serve.

Today I wish you a day of perfect freedom and fun – with the prayer that, as we celebrate our unfathomable liberties as a nation, we find a pattern of “tethered freedom” in Christ that allows us to be truly free.

7-3-17 - Hidden From the Wise

Summertime – and the living is easy… or should be. I'll try to make Water Daily a little shorter and hopefully sweeter. I’ve even shortened the chunk of Gospel we are going to consider this week. There are two sections, the first of which requires a lot of unpacking. So let’s just go with the second, especially as it contains Jesus’ beautiful invitation to “come to me, all ye who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” Perfect for a holiday week, right?

In the section we're skipping, Jesus inveighs against the faithlessness of his critics, chiefly the Pharisees and their ilk. He is also angered by the fickleness and lack of faith he finds among his own people relative to what the Gentiles show. Forget the scholars – give me the simple-hearted:

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.”

Sometimes knowledge can get in the way of our understanding, expectations cloud our ability to see the surprising, familiarity obscure the fullness of revelation. People envy those who have a “simple faith,” an ability to say “yes” to the story of God’s revelation in Christ, and to participate in that. Blessed are the simple-hearted – for they are often better able to get on with living by the Spirit.

And yet the Gospel is also given for those of us who think too much. Sometimes we just make it harder for ourselves. In the final analysis, analysis is not going to yield full understanding, any more than playing with the food on our plate is going to get us fed. The Good News is a gift to be taken and received, ingested, allowed to play in our minds, hearts and spirits.

Is the life of faith simple or complex for you?
How do you most fully connect with God – through your mind or your emotions or both?
If your analytical self gets in your way spiritually, you might try on a prayer practice of inviting Jesus to make his presence known, and just be with him, letting your feelings become known.
And if you tend to shy away from theological thinking, you might try a bible study and let your mind play.

Thanks be to God, even the most “wise and intelligent” among us are also invited to be “infants” in Christ, to put all our weight on the One who made us, loves us and renews us.

6-30-17 - The Spiritual Summer

No Bible today - I’m going seasonal. Coming into a summer holiday weekend is a good time to consider how the gifts of summertime can help us refresh our connection to God.

The long days and warm weather which most Water Daily readers are enjoying, based on our location, offer occasions for spiritual connection, on our own and in groups. I don’t know about you, but my spirit is fed and expanded by being outdoors, feeling a breeze, watching the sunlight play on leaves, admiring the strength and beauty of trees and flowers, observing the antics of animals large and small. The form of praise called exaltation rises in me more readily, and gratitude becomes a more dominant theme in my prayer.

Summer offers more time for spiritual activities as well. Whether we sit outside or enjoy a long walk after dinner (or before breakfast…), we can enter into conversation with God because we’re not rushing as much. Long dinners with friends allow time and space for the conversation to get spiritual as well. May I commend a few spiritual practices to try on during this season?

Mindfulness walks – take a walk in the woods or in a meadow or by a river or anywhere that you find beautiful. Pause before you start, to breathe deeply and to attend to each of your senses, ending with the eyes. What do you hear? What do you feel on your skin? What do you smell and even taste? Finally, what do you see? Take your time to tune each of these senses, and as you walk, try to notice and appreciate without engaging your thoughts – when you find your mind is busy, come back to the now by noticing with your senses again.

Gratitude journal – if this is not already your practice, try it for a season. Choose a time each day to sit, preferably outside, and note what you are thankful for. Write it down if you can. Does anything you write prompt you to want to go deeper in prayer? Sometimes noting what we’re grateful for reveals to us a deep yearning – talk to God about that.

Feasting – I love summer eating, and since I’ve expanded my appreciation of vegetables and fruits I find making food and eating it, alone or with others, an increasingly delightful adventure. Food makes real the incomprehensible abundance and variety of God’s creation, and variety and abundance are particularly vivid in the summer.

Make a spiritual activity of planning a menu, acquiring the ingredients (especially if it can involve a garden or farmer’s market), grilling if you like that. I love to sauté on my grill’s extra burner, even chopping the vegetables outside; my yard becomes a kitchen and dining room all in one. Praise the Creator with each phase of preparation; invite Jesus to join you as you eat – he was no stranger to dinner tables or kitchens, or picnics. Savor the richness of fine food with good friends – and know that God is in the middle of it all.

There are many more spiritual practices that are particularly wonderful to embrace during the summer, but those three are enough for today. As we move into the vacation season, I pray you will have many opportunities to draw near to God and experience the presence of the Spirit this summer.

6-29-17 - God's Free Gift

I’m going to turn to Sunday’s passage from Romans, feeling I have exhausted the themes I could dredge up in our very short Gospel reading. Romans is a deep and complex work of theology, so it’s a hard to just take a quick dip in it. But let’s jump in anyway, because it contains a beautiful invitation to freedom in Christ – freedom both from sin, and from the effort to claw our way into God’s good graces.

Thus far, Paul has been unfolding an argument to support his contention that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, not through our own efforts. It is Christ’s sacrifice that sets us free, not our own will-power or ability to modify our behaviors… indeed, behavior change comes as we accept with relief the free gift of forgiveness and grace:

But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In order to truly receive the free gift of God’s eternal life – which begins now, not just when we die – we need to allow God to free us from sin. Paul is concerned lest his listeners think this extravagant grace invites us to more sin. “Should we sin the more, that grace may abound?” he asks rhetorically, offering a resounding “No!” to the question. (I once had a t-shirt made reading “Sin that grace may abound” on the front… and on the back, “Should we?” and “No…”) Rather, we should allow the gift of God’s grace to loosen sin’s grip on us.

“Sin” can be defined in many ways, but one way Paul uses the term is to name the purely human, self-oriented nature that exists in us. All those things we label as “sins” grow out of that basic orientation toward self that can cause us to see other people as objects for our gratification, and God’s creation as something to be exploited. When Paul says we have been freed from sin, that is an “already” gift, given at baptism, secured by Christ’s sacrifice, made real in his resurrection. As we let that reality seep into our bones we are freed to choose the Spirit-led life Jesus won for us. The fancy word for that is “sanctification," becoming holy.

Paul adds, provocatively, that we exchange one bondage for another, as we now “become enslaved to God.” But such a voluntary relinquishing of our self-will and prerogatives invites us into a freedom unlike any other. It is a freedom that allows us to love beyond our capacity, to forgive more than we think possible, to dream God’s dreams for mission, to offer healing and ministry in Jesus’ name that enriches our lives beyond measure and transforms others.

That’s the free gift of eternal life we have already received in Christ Jesus. Let's not leave it on the closet shelf.

6-28-17 - Sent

I didn’t think I could squeeze one more word out of this this week’s Gospel passage, but I might just manage one: Sent. It is implied in what Jesus says about people welcoming those who come in his name as prophets and righteous folks, that they are sent, as he was sent.
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

What does it mean to be sent? Messengers are sent, ambassadors are sent, representatives are sent, teams are sent out on the field, troops to war, ambulances to accident sites… To be sent means to be deployed for a specific purpose. Most often our being sent bears some relation to our skills or connections.

Jesus sent his disciples to proclaim Good News of God’s activity in the world, to announce freedom to the poor and those in captivity, to heal the sick and raise the dead. Those are still pretty much the reasons he sends his followers out today. Do you feel sent to any particular place or people? Where do your skills and connections and passions point you?

I felt very much “sent” to my current ministry, and now find is coming to an end sooner than I’d planned or expected. Suddenly I’m waiting to know where God is sending me next. In that waiting I have an opportunity to discern what or who is calling to me, to see what big “God dreams” might have been waiting to emerge in me while I busied myself with the many ongoing tasks in a large and busy parish.

Wherever God sends me, I know God will also lead and equip me. Unlike a courier who goes out and reports back, apostles of Jesus Christ get to carry his presence and power with us as we go. It takes off some of the pressure, if we can only allow the Spirit to do the work and stop taking it on ourselves.

When have you felt sent by God, short or long-term?
What inner urges are you discerning – or trying to push down? 
Where would you like to be sent? Afraid to be sent?

Being sent starts, like everything in the Christian life, with relationship. We strengthen our relationship with Jesus through the Holy Spirit so that we can better understand God's prompts. They might come through our own desires, or through discerning a need or a lack. Sometimes God makes it clear through dreams and “coincidences” that cannot finally be denied. We can check with others if a calling seems really odd or risky – and if we go forward, know it will be most fruitful as we are aware of going with God, not for God.

And wherever we are sent by God, when we get there, we find God there too. Funny how that works.

6-27-17 - Ministry With

“…And whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

People often take Jesus’ remark about bringing cups of water to “these little ones” as a prompt to do outreach. While Jesus is big on caring for people in need, that’s not his meaning here. He is saying that those who do ministry with us, “in the name of a disciple,” will also be blessed.

In my previous church, when we provided a monthly meal at the city's shelter for men, I would bring my guitar and sing a few songs while the crew was readying the meal in the kitchen. The gentlemen waiting for dinner were generally appreciative; “dinner and a show!,” some remarked. But I liked it best when someone there could play. I’d hand over the guitar and let him entertain the group.

People need to be invited to participate when we’re out doing “good works.” We can offer ministry to, or we can offer ministry with – and “with” is much more inclusive and empowering. Just think which you would prefer if you were in need. Inviting other people to join us as we go about ministries of help and transformation is one of the most powerful ways to share the Gospel with others. It makes the Good News visible as people see a community of Christ-followers in action – that witness is often as vivid and appealing as the work being done.

Many churches are finding they draw more congregants by giving people opportunities to serve than by trying to entice them to worship. That puts the onus on us to be open to relationships as we serve meals and deliver clothes and visit those in prison, to get out from behind the counters and talk to the people we are serving, find out what their gifts are. I dream of a church where the well-fed and the hungry worship and serve together in one diverse community. That is what the first community of Christ-followers looked like.

What forms of helping or outreach or volunteering are you involved in? Is there room for inviting recipients of that help to participate in helping others? Can you think of ways to form community with the givers and the receivers until we are all aware of being both? No "us" and "them?"

In what ways do you sense God inviting you to work with God in bringing light and life to someone? Have you had a conversation with Jesus about that? Want to bring that up in prayer today?

It makes sense to do ministry with the ones for whom we offer our time and resources, because God has invited us to do ministry with him. We don’t work “for” God either – we work with God, at the direction and power of the Spirit moving through us. If we give someone else the opportunity to offer a gift to someone in need, we have given them a chance to live more deeply.

From God’s perspective, we are all “these little ones,” and we are all in need of the water of life.

6-26-17 - Welcomed

Permit me to rant… yesterday’s Gospel was 315 words of dense, challenging, provocative, hard-to-find-the-Good- News-in teaching from Jesus. And next Sunday’s? 82 words in 2 sentences, four clauses, saying not all that much. Come on! On the other hand, if I could reframe all that talk about swords, surely I can dive in and welcome the gifts of this very brief passage… which is all about welcoming.

After Jesus gives his followers hard instructions about going out to proclaim the Good News and heal the sick, he softens a bit, saying of those among whom they would go,
“Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”

Jesus stressed welcome in his sending talk, because his followers were to go out to villages and towns taking nothing along, no extra tunics, no clean underwear, no toothbrush, no money. They were to rely on the hospitality of those who welcomed them – and if they were not welcomed some place, they were to move on, save their breath.

This is important for us to hear. So often we express anxiety about discussing our faith with others; we assume that conversation will not be welcomed. Well, so what? Some will want it, some won’t. Move on, Jesus says, because you will find someone who does want to talk about matters of spirit and will be grateful that you had the courage to engage them in a conversation of the heart.

Our culture makes little room for the spiritual (though in the form of mindfulness, spirituality is starting to work its way from the margins into corporate retreats and yoga weekends - maybe because Christians have left such a vacuum?). When we introduce spirituality and faith into a conversation, whether with a friend or stranger, we are making space for a holy connection. We rely on the hospitality of the other person to welcome us into that space. If the other person doesn’t want to, no problem. Try again with someone else. Be open to the conversation if someone else introduces it. Let’s invite people to see our connection to God.

Do you anticipate rejection when you contemplate talking about your faith with someone, or do you expect welcome? Either way, we can be surprised…
Can you think of a person with whom you might want to start that conversation? 
What do you think his or her reaction would be if you raised a spiritual subject?

Here’s the thing: we don’t have to go out cold-calling people. We can respond to the Spirit’s prompts about who might be open. We can ask God in prayer, even over a period of weeks or years, “Shall I talk to that person about my faith? What’s the right approach? When do you think I should do it?” I think that’s a prayer that God will answer… maybe with a sign of some kind, or by our getting a feeling of “wait” or “go,” or there being an opening to talk. That very prayer will open our spirits and prepare us.

Jesus implies that someone will welcome us as we go about the mission of God to restore all things and all people to wholeness. And when they do welcome us, as we go in Christ’s name, they are welcoming Him, and in welcoming Him, they are welcoming God himself. It’s like bringing the CEO on a sales call, or having the chief of surgery giving a shot. We get to be the advance folks; God does the work.

6-23-17 - Family Values

I am amused when “family values” are equated with a 1950s American two-parent nuclear unit, as though that were a perfect reflection of Christian virtue. In fact, Jesus dissed his own mother publicly when she showed up with his brothers to quiet him down and bring him home. Jesus also said, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.” Jesus clearly redefined family; it’s not blood kin, but the fellowship of Christ-followers. Loving God comes first, no matter what.

As a pastor frequently frustrated when the claims of nuclear family impede involvement in church family activities, I read those words with a certain grumpiness. Sigh! It’s been a hard week in Water Daily Land, trying to interpret one hard teaching about priorities after another. Putting Jesus first is more counter-cultural all the time. Our culture says family comes first, no matter what. And we are much more formed by our culture than by what Jesus taught.

You may be familiar with the Jesus Doll, a rag doll with brown hair and a beard, a tunic, coat and sandals. He's soft and squishable and great for kids. In my previous parish, we let kids bring Jesus the Doll home for a week. They were encouraged to take Jesus everywhere they went, and to write in the journal that accompanied him. Where did Jesus go this week? Gymnastics class? The swimming pool? Walking the dog? Kids loved it. Mothers found it more wearing.

“Oh my God,” one said, “It’s unbelievably stressful having Jesus! I was afraid the dog would eat his sandals, or him. I was afraid we’d leave him somewhere!” Another, unable to get Jesus back to us for several weeks, wrote an apologetic email. She’d been sick, the kids had been sick, her husband had been away on business, Jewish friends visited, some other things happened… she concluded, “It just wasn’t a good week to have the Son of God at our house!”

News flash: it’s never a good week to have the Son of God around! Life is a whole lot easier with the priorities the world presents us: “Take what you want, when you want it, with whom you want it.” Chances are, if you’re reading this, you have already decided that is not your choice. Maybe you’ve entered the relationship into which Jesus invites you, or you are curious and exploring it. Maybe you’ve already discovered what Christians have known for 2000 years, that life is infinitely richer – though no less painful – when we are aware of having the Son of God around our house.

Jesus did not come to make us feel better about our lives. Jesus came to draw us closer in the one relationship we will have for eternity, in intimacy with God. Starting that relationship here and now makes our lives more purposeful – and often more stressful. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it,” Jesus says at the end of this teaching.

What are some of the ways Jesus’ claims have caused you to “lose your life,” or at least to give up some patterns that felt easy but were not life-giving? What are some of the ways you are resisting putting God in first place in your life? Who or what would have to be moved to second or third? Can you offer that to God in prayer, inviting the Spirit in?

The gift – which we can only discover by doing it – is that when we move our God-life into first place, we engage our other priorities more fully, because we don’t try to own them. We appreciate them as gifts, and can stop ranking them. Maybe that’s what Jesus means by “finding our life…”

6-22-17 - Jesus' Sword

I wonder if Jesus knew how much carnage would be wrought in his name because of these words attributed to the Prince of Peace, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.”

Would he have said them? Did he say them? By the time Matthew wrote his account of Jesus’ life, these words would have passed through quite a few reporters. Maybe they got skewed? How I wish they had never been written down.

So much blood has been shed between Christians and Jews, Christians and Muslims, Christians and indigenous peoples, Christians and other Christians. There have been crusades and counter-crusades, attacks and massacres and reprisals and counter-reprisals. Rivers of blood have flowed as corrupt politicians hungry for land, oil, power, vengeance and money have joined with zealots to cloak their murderous agendas in religious language. There is enough violent rhetoric in the scriptures of many religions, including our own, to fuel endless bloodshed.

And Jesus isn’t even talking about conflict between enemies but in families. He goes on to say, “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household.” What?

I don’t think Jesus was saying he came to bring conflict, but that conflict would be an inevitable consequence of following him in his mission. Jesus came to wield God’s love against the evils of this world, injustice and oppression, corruption and complacency. That doesn’t make for a peaceful life. Those whose mission is peace often provoke conflict and die violently.

Notice, Jesus did not say, “I have come not to bring peace, but violence.” He said "not peace but a sword." Look at some of the other ways “sword” is used in the New Testament: The sword of the Spirit is one of the defensive weapons we take up against the devil. In Hebrews we read that the Word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword, “…dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow …” That is surgically sharp!

The sword Jesus refers to can be a sword of discernment, distinguishing good from evil, what will bless us and make us effective as disciples from what will harm us and make us complacent and weak. He is saying there is evil in the world, and His followers need to be ready to distinguish the Kingdom of Light from the realm of darkness. That does divide families sometimes. Jesus demands our fidelity over all other claims. The priorities of this world – family, wealth, convenience, distraction – do not make us effective disciples. Jesus is just calling it. We can be fuzzy, or we can be clear. Jesus came not to bring peace but reality and radical freedom to move in God’s Spirit.

Have you ever had to make a choice to disassociate from people or practices that were destructive for you? Do you face such dilemmas in your life now?
Might we ask for the Spirit's help to marry “mission clarity” with our calling to be peacemakers?

Jesus paid the ultimate price for his mission, at least in worldly terms. In eternal terms, he was just getting started.

6-21-17 - A Public Faith?

We are often judged by the company we keep. Are we willing to let the world know we hang out with Jesus?

Jesus lays it on the line in this week's passage. After telling his disciples to go forward boldly, proclaiming the good news, healing the sick, he says, "Everyone therefore who acknowledges me before others, I also will acknowledge before my Father in heaven; but whoever denies me before others, I also will deny before my Father in heaven.”

It’s hard when Jesus raises the stakes like that. Where’s the mercy, I ask? It seems, from things he is recorded as having said in the gospels, that Jesus was short on mercy for religious insiders who refused to accept the good news of “God-With-Us” that he had revealed to them. His mercy ran more freely to outsiders or underdogs than to his own peers. It is unsurprising that people in need would more readily accept Jesus’ revelation of his messiahship than the “insiders” who were so sure they knew what God would look and act like. And Jesus cuts the insiders no slack.

Jesus is not in a “slack-cutting” mode in this training talk. He knew time was short; that those who said “Lord, Lord” really had to stand by their allegiance to him, and not go quiet when the association proved inconvenient or dangerous. Would he go any easier on us?

A few years ago I read the The Tenth Parallel, by Eliza Griswold, on clashes between Christianity and Islam in Muslim and Christian communities in Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. In Malaysia she met an indigenous Orang Asli who was a convert to Christianity (many Orang Asli are trying hard to hold on to their traditional beliefs and practices under threat of extinction, but some do convert). Christians and other religious minorities suffer harsh persecution in Malaysia, which has a vigorously conservative and oppressive Muslim majority.

This pastor said to her, "Americans don’t care what’s happening in other places, do they," a sentiment she encountered among persecuted Christians elsewhere too. "He pondered aloud if need kept people closer to God and God closer to them. ‘I wonder, is there a place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?’”

It’s a good question. In my fairly privileged segment of Christendom, proclamation of Jesus Christ as Lord is often muted; to some, even saying “Jesus” smacks of fundamentalism. Some Episcopalians are hostile to the word evangelism, as though there were only one (obnoxious) way to share faith. Others are happy to be affiliated with Jesus – in church on Sundays – but reluctant to let that be known in the circles they travel the rest of the week.

Are we willing to be public about our affiliation with Jesus, the Christ, to acknowledge his Lordship in our lives? Or does it make us uncomfortable? Is Jesus, and proclaiming wholeness and peace in his name, important enough to us?

We sit under the judgment of Jesus’ words as well as the promises they contain. What is the place for God’s word in the lives of people who have everything?

6-20-17 - Splitting Hairs

“Have no fear of them,” Jesus says, as he tells his followers of the enemies they may encounter on God’s mission. “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father. And even the hairs of your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.”

So, God knows the number of hairs on our head and values us even more than precious sparrows. That does not mean God promises us physical protection (read Psalm 79 sometime). I believe it means simply that we are of infinite value to God, whose love for us is not diminished by our physical death.

It is a hard balance we seek as followers of the One who promised eternal life: to live fully in this life, loving its gifts and pursuing God’s mission in the world, while holding this life lightly, knowing it is not our final destination. People who have encountered death, in near-death experiences, often say they no longer fear death. And it is the fear of death that so often holds us back in fully living our lives.

I don’t think Jesus is minimizing the trauma of physical death. He is inviting his followers to weigh that against the greater trauma of spiritual death, apathy or even allegiance to the enemy who seeks to degrade and destroy God's creatures. If fear of death, or fear of losing income or time or reputation, keeps us from giving our hearts to God, we place ourselves in spiritual peril. Following Jesus does not mean that nothing else in our lives matters; it means we gradually allow ourselves to put God first, above every other thing and person who claims our love. It’s not either-or; it’s both-and… and in the order of priority. God comes first.

And if God comes first, it lowers the stakes for everything else. We can be more confident taking risks when we value our God-Life more than our physical life. Not caring so much about our physical existence – while still investing in it; I did say it was a balancing act – sets us free to discover who we most fully are, how exquisitely and uniquely we are made. Rather than seeing Jesus’ words as warning, might we take them as invitation to greater freedom?

Today let's examine what holds us back from making God our number one priority, if God is not.
What fears impede our proclaiming to those we know our allegiance to God in Christ?

If we can name our fears, we can invite the Holy Spirit to transform them into freedom. “Perfect love casts out fear” is a promise we are given in scripture. Wherever we feel fear, we might invite God to sow love… envision the place of your fear and God planting a seed of love in that spot.

Then we can sit with the sparrows and watch our fear wither like a weed and the love grow strong and beautiful, knowing that God is keeping an eye on us... and counting the hairs on our heads, however few or many there may be.

6-19-17 - The UnProsperity Gospel

Would you have gone on this mission if Jesus asked you? His words to his followers as he sends them out to proclaim the good news and heal the sick are full of warnings about unwelcoming communities, hostile audiences and even persecution. He says the challenges he encountered would also come to those who went forth in his name – master and slave are equal in the sight of detractors:

"A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master; it is enough for the disciple to be like the teacher, and the slave like the master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household!" 

It’s a wonder any of them went. Would facing danger for proclaiming Christ embolden us – or send us into hiding? How good is this “Good News?”

Some preachers build huge congregations and rake in loads of money promising prosperity and good fortune for those who put Jesus first – often defined as making large donations to the pastor’s ministry. I sometimes wonder if they’re right; their churches sure seem blessed. Then I remember Jesus never promised anything but love and an odd kind of joy amidst adversity in this life, and an eternity of relationship in the next. And he promised his presence with us, throughout, no matter what.

That is where I suggest we rest this week, as we read through another challenging passage, by opening ourselves to Jesus’ presence. That is where all ministry in his name begins – being filled with His Spirit.

Today, let’s take a few minutes to sit quietly, offering thanks for the gifts of the week past, repentance for our failures to demonstrate love, and naming those things that worry us about the week to come. And then let’s pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (the ancient formulation is “Maranatha!”). And wait. See how Jesus draws near, or what comes up in you as you sit in stillness.

The prosperity preachers are right about one thing: cultivating an expectation of blessing yields blessing. God’s blessing, God’s “yes” comes in many forms, not only material wealth. As we are open to it, look for it, name it, we will experience it more often, and tell what we’ve experienced. And then, whether we’re in the midst of wolves or sleepy sheep, we can proclaim our good news, “The Life of God has come near to you!”

6-16-17 - Wise as Serpents

Adversity is part of the deal when we become ministers of the Gospel, especially when we invite people to re-examine long-standing beliefs and traditions. Jesus uses a potent image to warn his disciples about the challenges they will face as they proceed:

“See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the Gentiles.”

The “wolves” in this scenario are fellow Jews, in particular those religious leaders benefiting from the status quo. Jesus knew they would oppose him and put obstacles in the way of his followers. He suggests meeting such opposition with both cunning and transparency, a tricky balance to manage.

It’s not so hard to fathom what it means to be “innocent as doves” – it means to have an agenda of peace and goodwill, be straightforward about your message and your aim. If we think of sharing our faith or introducing people to Christ as we’ve come to know him, it means being clear that this is part of who we are. There’s nothing worse than a “bait and switch” approach to evangelism. If we’re sincere about building relationships AND about letting our spiritual selves be part of the encounter, we’re being innocent as doves.

Jesus’ exhortation to be “wise as serpents” is a little harder to parse. Where does being canny morph into cunning? I had to consider what attributes of serpents we might adopt as we move out in mission, One is their ability to move quickly and nimbly and with great flexibility. They are low to the ground, able to get where they need to be without drawing a lot of attention to themselves. So we might show up at opportune moments, and maneuver with grace around those who would shut us up, or tell us to leave our religion out of it.

What Jesus was primarily trying to tell his followers was that there would be resistance to their ministry which might well harden into persecution – and that no matter what, God would be with them, speaking his message through them:

"When they hand you over, do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you."

I doubt we need worry about being handed over to councils and flogged (in this country, anyway). The resistance we encounter might take the form of social pressure "not to be so religious," and indifference. Whatever happens, Jesus’ counsel to be both winsome and wise, gentle and canny is as apt for us as it was for his disciples. We have a story to tell, an invitation to offer, an introduction to make – let’s not let anything stop us from making Christ known.

6-15-17 - Packing Light

It is packing season – summer vacations, weekend getaways; many of us will be taking down our suitcases and tote bags and deciding what to bring along and what to leave behind. What we pack depends largely on where we’re going – a weekend at my sister’s may call for shorts and t-shirts, while packing for a wedding can require five pairs of shoes.

And what if we’re packing for a mission trip? Jesus says, “Don’t. Just go.” His instructions to his disciples are perplexing: “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.”

He wants them to go out without any resources or safety net, to rely completely on the hospitality of those to whom they are sent. “Wait a minute,” they may have thought – “I thought we were bringing the gift. Now you want us to ask them to take us in and feed us, so we can preach the gospel to them? What’s that about?”

Maybe it’s about vulnerability. Maybe it’s about mutuality, not going to people with the resources or answers we think they need, but inviting them into relationship in which they can meet Jesus. Maybe it’s about allowing people to give to us, so that that we’re sharing on level ground, not from a place of power or control.

And for the ones carrying the Gospel to others, it is also an invitation to build the kind of trust muscles we need in the service of God. Having no money or change of clothes, no toothbrush or even a staff to lean on is an invitation to lean totally on God’s provision and love. “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” we ask baptismal candidates. It is very hard to put our whole trust in anything, let alone a force we can know but not see or feel. But that’s the kind of faith Jesus invites us to grow.

When have you been in a situation where you had to rely totally on God? Where you couldn’t see what good was going to come, and could only trust that it would? These are trust-building opportunities.

It is not easy, but I can tell you that the testimony of those who live this way is that God comes through, again and again, often in completely unforeseen ways, often through the very people they thought they were there to help. When we break down the "us" and "them" and become "us," all kinds of mutual giving become possible.

This story was about being sent on mission. Perhaps it is also an invitation to live more lightly always, less encumbered about stuff and space and security. Every day we have an invitation, right in our own lives, to simplify, to free up.

And every day we have opportunities to go to someone in the name of Christ, seeing what meals are provided to us when we don’t try to get them for ourselves. We don’t get to set the menu, but we will be fed. That’s the life of faith.

6-14-17 - Know Your Audience

It’s the first principle of marketing: know your audience, then shape your message and target your approach accordingly. Jesus knew that, sending out his disciples on their first mission foray: 
These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”

More than onceJesus declined ministry to people from ethnicities other than his own Jewish people (though he always relented, and thus expanded his market share…) His teaching and activities suggest that he saw his initial mission as correcting misinterpretations of the Torah, and inviting God’s chosen people back into alignment with God’s love and God’s truth. It seems reclaiming the whole world came later.

Similarly, he told his disciples they were sent not to everybody, not to the “other,” but to their own people – the “lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Eventually, outreach and evangelism to the “other” became hallmarks of missional strategy for the church. But maybe in this early stage of training Jesus didn’t want his disciples distracted by cross-cultural chasms or barriers of language and religion. He wanted them to get used to proclaiming the Good News, healing the sick, casting out demons, even raising the dead, and to start with those who already knew the basics about the One Holy God of Israel.

The targeting was even more precise: within that one ethnic group, they were to zero in on one "worthy" household, not broadcasting their seeds to see where they might take root, but planting by hand as opportunities were given:

Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.

This last may sound rude, even hostile to us. I think Jesus was simply inviting them to develop a laser-like focus on building relationships with people with whom they shared a language, who might be open to the gift of Good News. The same often applies to us. It can seem easier to share our faith with total strangers than with those who look and talk like us, because maybe we don’t have to be as vulnerable. But more often than not God sends us to those with whom there are fewer barriers to connection.

Who do you know who needs to know Jesus’ love, to hear the Good News of freedom and grace? Pray about how you might go about offering that Good News. And if you are rebuffed, move on to someone else. That’s not the “anointed appointment” God is inviting you to have.

The Spirit will lead us, as we ask and are willing, to those who are hungry for what we have to give.

6-13-17 - Every and All

When we read the Gospels with an eye to getting to know Jesus, a principle becomes evident: abundance and fullness. Five vats of water turned into wine, food enough for 5,000 with twelve baskets left over. And it applies to healing as well – Matthew tells us Jesus went to all the cities and villages, and cured every disease and every sickness.

And he expected and equipped his followers to do the same:
Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness.

Is Matthew just being hyperbolic? None of the gospels show Jesus failing to heal someone in need of it, though at least once his disciples were unable to cast a demon out of a young boy. And once Jesus had to pray twice for the healing of a blind man. "All” and “every” meant just that.

If Jesus healed every disease and illness he encountered, and if he gave authority over disease and demons to his disciples, and if he empowered those disciples-turned-apostles with the Holy Spirit after his resurrection and ascension, and if we carry on the ministry of those apostles through an unbroken chain of laying on of hands In ordination and confirmation… then why don’t we heal every disease and every illness?

Engaging such “why” questions is a recipe for trouble. So much in the realm of prayer is mystery, we can only speculate, based on our reading of Scripture and our experience. I believe we see fewer healings because so often we don’t ask. And sometimes when we ask, it is with meagre faith. Let me be clear – faith needs to rest in the community. I’m not saying each person has to have a full and clear faith – but the community can and should. In my experience, communities that expect healing, that expect answers to prayer, often experience more. The more faith we bring to the exercise of healing prayer, the more healing we see. And where healing remains joined to the proclamation of the Good News, we may see even more positive outcomes.

Healing is fundamental to what it means to be Christians, apostles bearing witness to the power and love of God unleashed in the world through the Spirit of Christ. It is not meant to be reserved to a small cadre of “healing ministers” praying for 5 minutes during a church service. It is to be exercised by all of us, all the time, everywhere we go. I long to see a congregation where it is normal to see people praying with each other at coffee hour, in the parking lot, in each other’s homes, by faith, with thanksgiving.

Perhaps when every Christ follower exercises his or her faith in releasing God’s healing in the sick, the infirm, the despairing, all people will be healed. That’s how the Realm of God becomes visible. Through us.

6-12-17 - Harassed and Helpless

Congratulations – you have made it through the seasons and festivals and holidays that span Christmas through Easter to Pentecost, and have arrived safely at that long stretch we call “Ordinary Time.” From now until Advent, minus a few feast days, we will hear stories from Jesus’ ministry and teaching. We have an opportunity to get to know him better, and to explore our own callings within his ongoing mission.

For that, we come in at a good spot – next Sunday’s Gospel reading drops us at the start of Jesus’ travels, with his instructions to his disciples before their first foray out. Let’s listen as though we were one of them, for, indeed, we are, and the mission field Jesus described then, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” is as apt today.

The mood of the people Jesus encountered is also the same as what we see today:
Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and curing every disease and every sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.

Jesus set out to proclaim the Good News of God’s mission to restore and renew all of creation to wholeness, and to demonstrate that mission by healing every ill person he encountered. As he went, he also responded with compassion to what he saw – people who were harassed and helpless, rudderless, leader-less.

The ones he encountered lived in poverty and fear, under the thumb of the Roman occupiers and further oppressed by their own religious leaders. People we encounter in our lives may more often be harassed by the demands of wealth than poverty, but many are also seeking direction, to be led to safety and green pastures and still waters. They are hungry for meaning, thirsty for purpose and the kind of love only God can give. We have access to these gifts – will we share?

Who do you know who is harassed or helpless, or both? Who is awakening your compassion? How might God be sending you to that person with a message of promise and life?

Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

Are you ready to be sent? Ask God in prayer to show you where and when and how and to whom. Just say the word – God will send you into the harvest.

6-9-17 - St. Columba

Today is the Feast Day of St. Columba, whom we will celebrate at his namesake church this coming Sunday. Columba was a 6th century Irish prince who entered religious life, got into various scrapes and battles, and ended up leaving his beloved Ireland to evangelize what is now Scotland (a task which, according to one of many legends, included subduing the Loch Ness monster…) He died on the isle of Iona in 597 CE, a missionary who lived out Jesus’ commission to “go and make disciples.”

By historical account, Columba struggled much with pride and anger and his own exceptional talents. He learned the hard way, as do most of us, to rely on God’s power and love. And he learned that Jesus does not send us off alone with the charge to spread the Good News – he comes with us. Jesus’ last words on that mountain were, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” But sometimes it can be hard to feel his presence. Here are a few ways I know of to draw on that promise:

Prayer – when we allow our minds to quiet and invite the Spirit to fill us, it is the Spirit of Christ who comes to us. The visually inclined can ask Jesus to show up in the imagination in some place and form that resonates for us, where we can talk and listen to him - and just hang out.

Praise – when we release our spirits in praise, as we sing or admire beauty or enjoy an intimate meal, we feel a presence in us and around us. That is Christ, joining our praises.

Eucharist – We offer these words and actions to remember Him, because he said to… and remember means more than "recall." It also means to reconstitute the members of a body. We receive the life of Christ in those signs of his body and blood – and He has promised to be there with us.

In the Hungry and Forgotten – Jesus said when we feed and clothe and visit and tend to those in need, we do it for him. Doing ministry among people with obvious needs – and many assets, don’t forget – is a wonderful way to be with Jesus. Ask him in advance to show himself to you.

Ministries of Power – Jesus told his followers that when the Spirit came, they would do even greater works than they’d seen in him. When we pray for healing or reconciliation or exercise spiritual power in Jesus’ name, we are invoking his presence with us.

What are the ways you sense the presence of Jesus? Are there times you feel abandoned anyway? Those are normal, especially when a lot of things are going wrong. God invites us to pray through them and pipe up and say, “What happened to, ‘I will be with you always?’ Not feeling it…”

Always is a long time. We can experience Christ with us moment by moment, and expand our capacity. I’ll close with lyrics from a song I wrote a few years ago for Eastertide, called “Was That You?” It explores the garden and Emmaus and the fish. The last verse brings the question to us:

So where did you last see him, where he wasn’t supposed to be?
He told us he’d be with the poor, the lost, the last, the least …
He said that we would know him in Word and bread and wine;
He promised to be with us, now – and to the end of time.
Is that you breathing peace to me when it's storming in my head?
Is that you releasing power in me, the power that raised the dead?
Is that you, loving me more than I could ever understand?
Don’t know why it always takes a while for me to open up my eyes and see:
That it’s you, always next to me, Jesus, you, right here, next to me.

6-8-17 - The Great Co-Mission

Jesus said, “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Christians reply, “Okay, We have our orders - here we go to save some souls!” And here the church has gone, for over 2,000 years, carrying the Good News to the ends of the earth. At Grace Church in the late 1970s we held a multi-day preaching revival mission keynoted by a Ugandan bishop, Festo Kavingere, come to save the souls of secular New Yorkers. The ends of the earth (from our Western perspective, anyway…) had come to us. The Great Commission is our job.

Yet when we understand God’s mission as a job, an order to follow, we lose sight of perhaps the most important word: “Co.” Co-mission means mission with. Jesus never intended his followers to take the hand-off from him and run with the ball on our own. He promised His Spirit would be in us, confirming the power of our words in signs and wonders. Perhaps, when the Great Commission has run off the rails, it’s been when the “co” got dropped and it became just mission. Our mission. My mission.

Co-mission means we are always partners in God’s mission, rather than us recruiting God as a silent partner to bless our missions. When we are partners in God’s mission, we can be sure that we’re in God’s will and that good fruit is promised. God is always creating new life, restoring wholeness – so we can be sure God always has a mission for us to join into. God seems, in fact, to rely on our joining in, or that thing doesn’t get accomplished. It’s like an electrical current needing a conductor to carry it – we’re the wire, folks, literally wired in to what God has already purposed.

How do we know when it’s God’s mission? It will resemble Christ’s missions. Look around you: Where do you see energy and passion that result in people being blessed, healed, fed, reconciled? There’s God’s mission. Where do you see hunger, fear, injustice or oppression? God may be inviting you to join God there.

Where do you see needs, frustration, wheels spinning? Maybe that’s a place where mission is being undertaken without God, like a wire disconnected from the current. Sometimes much of what I spend my time and energy on does not feel like God’s mission at all, but rather my attempt to help prop up old conveyor belts for human mission initiatives, my own included.

God’s mission is not about meeting needs, though needs are often met as we go about God’s mission. God’s mission is about bringing life to things that are dead or on their way there. God’s mission is about freedom and peace. We’re about God’s mission when we feel our sails full of Holy Spirit wind; when we don’t know the route but know we’re going somewhere blessed.

When do you feel you are “co-missioning” with God rather than “missioning” on your own?
When do you feel your passion and energy rising in ministry? Start noticing what gets your attention, and when in conversation you become more focused and enthusiastic.

You might ask God to wire you in to a mission, large or small – and to give you a clue that’s what’s happening by letting you see some fruit.

If God is always on the move, and if God needs us to carry the current of what God wants to accomplish… think how often God may want us just to show up and say, “Here I am. Use me.” That’s the Greatest Co-mission of all.

6-7-17 - Making Disciples

It’s a muscular charge, the way Matthew renders Jesus’ last earthly instruction to his followers:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.”

Authority…. Go and make… Obey… Commanded…. This is not language of invitation and inspiration – or love. And it has fostered some atrocious Christian behavior in world history. It’s not so hard to justify crusades and conquistadors when you take your marching orders from this verse – and this verse has had more influence than many in the bible. We even call it The Great Commission.

We can chalk some of this up to Matthew’s style – his version of stories and sayings often sound more legalistic than in other Gospels. Writing forty or so years after the events he records, in the face of persecution and unrest and competing factions in the Christian movement, he may have felt it important to stress Jesus’ authority and command. To those who wanted to reserve Jesus’ blessing to Jewish believers, he may have wanted to remind them that these gifts were for all nations, that spreading the Good News is part of the church’s DNA. In a time when alternate readings of Christian revelation were already sprouting, he called people back to the teachings and commandments of Christ.

How do we take these words and live into them, aware of the harm and the good they’ve often caused? How might we rediscover the joy of sharing Good News in Jesus’ name, not holding back the blessing we have received?

Let’s ponder what it means to “make disciples.” It does not mean force a discipline on another, or manipulate allegiance. A disciple, one who takes on the discipline of a teacher, needs to do so by choice, or he will lack the motivation to follow through. Those who chose to follow Jesus in his earthly ministry caught his passion and wanted to be a part of what he was doing. That’s how people still become his disciples. If we want to share in this mission of God, we will rediscover and share our own passion for the love of God and the Way of Jesus. Otherwise, we’re just going to church.

When someone has caught the passion for loving God, we invite her to be baptized (note the passive verb form... baptism is something we receive more than "do"), to mark this new commitment. We invoke the Holy Spirit to fill and equip her. And yes, we teach her all that Jesus has commanded, in all its counter-intuitive glory – to love enemies, value the poor more than our own, seek peace over being right, to name a few. And we train her to walk in the Spirit, so that choosing to obey Jesus’ commands gradually becomes a desire, not just a duty.

Making disciples starts with us. Do you consider yourself a disciple of Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord? Why or why not? If you’re not, and you want to be, you can pray, “Okay, Jesus, I want to follow you… show me how.” And ask someone you consider to be a disciple already to walk alongside you.

Is there someone you know whom you might mentor in the faith, helping them discover discipleship? You can start by praying for God to bless that desire and give you openings.

Making disciples is a little more complex than “just add water” – but it’s God’s work. We just get to help.